It could hardly be bigger. Two out of the top three leading clubs in the world set for a grand European battle on what could be another famous Old Trafford night. Three weeks may have passed since these old clubs last met, but none of the focus or intensity surrounding the tie has drifted away. As Real Madrid coach José Mourinho put it on Monday, “the world will stop to watch”.
Indeed, not only are both Manchester United and the visitors sporting some of the game’s finest, but each is in good form too. United, having not lost in any competition since 5 December, now sport a 12-point lead in the Premier League, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side chasing silverware on three fronts. Meanwhile, Mourinho’s outfit arrives having beaten Barcelona twice in the space of eight days, home and away.
Each side has enough weaponry to seize victory on the night, although United has the edge having scored at the Bernabéu in the opening tie of this Round of 16 clash. But it is, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo, on whom most eyes will gaze – the 28-year-old forward returns to Old Trafford as a player for the first time since departing in summer 2009. A long-lost love.
The match also promises to be a fascinating tactical battle, with each one of Europe’s finest counter-attacking sides and both undeniably frail at the back over the course of the season. While United has secured four clean sheets in a row during Premier League matches, Real’s propensity to score on the break has remained the focus for Sir Alex’ side over the past week.
It leads to the very real possibility that United may concede territory and possession on the night, hoping to neutralise Real’s threat on the counter and benefit from broken play, just as Ferguson’s side did at the Bernabéu last time out.
“As we know, they are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe and that showed last Tuesday in the Nou Camp,” said Ferguson of Real, who beat Barcelona 3-1 in the Copa Del Rey semi-final at Camp Nou.
“They were stunning on the counter-attack. We have to find a way of coping with that but also having our own threat. There will be goals and I think both teams will score. We have to think we will score more,” he said. “Both teams are in form. As a European night I don’t think you get any bigger than this one – great clubs with great histories. It is set up to be a potentially marvellous game and I don’t think it will be a disappointment either.”
Ferguson is likely to be without defender Phil Jones, who was asked to man-mark the space between defence and attack in the opening leg. Jones’ ability to limit, although not eliminate, Ronaldo’s attacking threat, along with creative fulcrum Mesut Özil, played a significant role in United’s 1-1 draw.
And the 20-year-old’s ankle injury means that Sir Alex is more likely to deploy a traditional formation at Old Trafford. Ferguson deployed two strikers in wide positions and Jones in a holding role three weeks ago. It leaves United vulnerable to Ronaldo’s considerable threat.
“My biggest concern is if he turns up,” said Sir Alex. “What do you expect if you play against him? You expect problems during the night and you try to prepare for it as best you can. It won’t be easy because he does it every week. The experience young Rafa had in Madrid will hold him in good stead because he will be doing the same again. I don’t think it is one we should fear. If we go out fearing the damage Cristiano can do us then we will forget what we can do.”
Jones aside Ferguson has few injury concerns ahead of Tuesday’s fixture. The 71-year-old will choose two from Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić and Jonny Evans in central defence, while three midfield slots remain open. Hat-trick hero Shinji Kagawa could be sacrificed if Ferguson opts for a more defensive-minded option, although the Japanese performed well tucking in from the left at the weekend.
Ryan Giggs will make his 1,000th senior appearance for club and country, although it is likely to be from the bench.
Meanwhile, Real arrive in Manchester with confidence high after twice beating rivals Barcelona in the past week, scoring five against the run-away La Liga leaders in the process. But Mourinho, who is likely to leave Real for the Premier League in the summer, insists that facing United at Old Trafford is just another game. One that the planet will be glued to.
“The world will stop to watch this tie,” said the Portuguese coach.
“I doubt expectations can be bigger than for this one. Nobody knows what will happen because the teams are well matched. United are on a fantastic run. They have reached the FA Cup quarter-final and they are winning the Premier League already in March. They don’t lose a match in months but we are also in good form in 2013.”
It is a fact that few at Old Trafford will have missed. United, holding an away goal, may be marginal favourites, but only just. After all, the last time Real visited Old Trafford, Ferguson’s side was strong favourites to progress. Ronaldo, the Brazilian variety, scored three to take Real through.
Most attending on Tuesday night will hope the 2013 namesake fails to repeat the trick.
Manchester United v Real Madrid – Champions League, Old Trafford – 7.45pm, 5 March 2013.
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner, Nani, Powell, Anderson, Giggs, Young, Welbeck, Hernández
Real (4-3-3): Lopex; Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrao; Alonso, Khederia; Di Maria, Özil, Ronaldo; Benezema. Subs from: Casillas, Varane, Albiol, Carvalho, Marcelo, Nacho, Essien, Kaka, Modric, Callejon, Higuain.
Match officials (all TUR)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır
Assistant referees: Bahattin Duran, Tarik Ongun
Additional assistant referees: Hüseyin Göçek, Mete Kalkavan
Head to Head
Last 10: United 2, Real 3, Draw 4
Overall: United 2, Real 3, Draw 4
* United to win on penalties